Students Play Hardball

Students Play Hardball

Students from Crestwood, Lynbrook elementary schools pose hard questions to local elected officials.

A typical politician’s forum consists of adults asking pre-approved questions to those seeking office, trying to discern their position on several issues that will decide who they support.

During a meeting of the Springfield Civic Association, Del. Vivian Watts (D-39), Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39) and U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) had to face a much tougher crowd with nothing to lose: A group of 19 sixth grade students who wanted to know what their future would hold.

The students asked each official four questions, after which they had five minutes to answer while being timed.

The first question, asked by Sarah Knenlein, set the tone of the evening.

“Del. Watts, Virginia uses the Dillon Rule to distribute tax revenues to the many counties throughout the state. Please explain how the Dillon Rule works and why there seems to be an imbalance in the revenue that is sent to the state by Northern Virginia and what is returned to our local use,” she asked.

Watts explained that the Dillon Rule didn’t have any control over how money is distributed across Virginia but instead regulated how much authority local governments have to make laws.

“The tough part is getting the members of the House of Delegates to agree on how to distribute funds,” Watts said. “For example, we guarantee every child the right to an education, but if education is limited because of the funds in one area of the state, the education wouldn’t be the same.”

The same goes for money dedicated to transportation, she said.

“Our need for roads is horrendous but we don’t get our fair share of the money we put into the state,” Watts said.

Ratib Ansari asked O’Brien how he and his classmates will be able to afford to live in Fairfax County, considering the increasing cost of living in Northern Virginia.

Nodding to his own young son in the audience, O’Brien said that was a question he put to himself every day.

“The problem the government has is we have a lot of services to provide and they all cost money,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know if I have an answer for that. A lot of public servants don’t get paid enough to live here, which means they have to spend more money for gas to work here. In life, your behavior changes so you do what you can afford to do,” he said.

Valeria Mavrich asked Davis what he and the Congress planned to do to help the “millions of people in this country that do not have health insurance because they cannot afford it.”

She also wanted to know when phone glitches that impaired the ability of some senior citizens to register for the new Medicare prescription drug program in time for the May 15 deadline would be repaired.

“People had months to sign up for the Medicare plan,” Davis said. “Yes, it’s complicated, but help is available. If people don’t make enough money to afford health insurance, that’s why we have Medicaid,” he said.

Rodrigo Velasquez wanted to know how high gas prices would go before elected officials, like O’Brien, would do something to ease the burden.

“In the U.K., gas is $7 per liter,” O’Brien said. “Some people in other developed nations think we’re getting off easy.”

He urged the exploration of alternative energy sources and the possibility of tapping into the country's oil reserves to reduce the dependency on foreign oil. “Fossil fuel is a scarce resource and it will run out. It will be brilliant young people like you who will find the solution to our fuel problems,” he said.

ONE THE ISSUE of immigration, Max Benitos asked Davis his stance on legislation that would require undocumented immigrants to return to their native countries.

“Some of the people who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11 were in the country illegally,” Davis said. He said he’d prefer to think of America establishing “a high wall with a wide gate” for people to come into the country legally, but any incentives to come into the country illegally should be eliminated.

“It’s important to get people out of the shadows of the 7-Elevens and into a legal work program so they can pay taxes,” Davis said.

Citing Watt’s own Web site, Alyssa Katindig asked what she felt was the best way to deter gang violence and how to go about paying for stricter law enforcement against gangs.

Referencing a law discussed in her most recent term in Richmond, Watts told the students about the complexities of turning brandishing a machete into a criminal offense. Considering a machete’s use as an agricultural tool, any farmer could be held responsible for causing fear in another person.

“We have laws that say burning a cross on someone’s property is a crime in and of itself because of the fear it causes,” Watts said. “We used the same concept to make brandishing a machete a crime in and of itself, but we had to be careful in how we approached that because of our cultural and racial history.”

A NIGHT AFTER President Bush called for the assignment of National Guardsmen to protect the U.S.-Mexico boarder, Jhanina Vargas asked Davis about his recent bill to include the National Guard in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When Guardsmen are sent overseas, they are shifted from a state to a federal pay system, and many of the soldiers were not getting paid for their work in Iraq, Davis said. When those soldiers returned and were shifted back to the state-based pay system, many were not receiving the medical care they needed.

“These men and women are trying to fulfill a job that was not envisioned for them,” Davis said. “Our men and women deserve better. They at least deserve a voice at the table.”

Jordan Adams asked Watts what her plans were to improve transportation funding across Northern Virginia, as road conditions and congestion continue to decline.

Grabbing a chart she brought along for just such a question, Watts pointed out that in the past 20 years, the population of Fairfax County has increased only 20 percent, but the number of miles traveled has increased by 70 percent while the amount of funding dedicated to building roads has decreased by 40 percent.

“Every other state has increased gas tax in recent years while we have reduced it,” she said. “We’ve increased the funding we receive from car tags and the like, but how do we make up the funding gap? Pretty soon, we won’t have any money left for anything other than maintenance of the roads we currently have,” Watts said.

A subject near to their hearts, Amanda Ngo wanted to know what O’Brien thought of the pressure on students to meet the requirements of the Standards of Learning test in addition to the federal No Child Left Behind program.

“The president and his administration are trying to do what Virginia is doing with the SOLs but on a national level,” O’Brien said. “We have asked the federal government for a waiver because we’re already doing what they want, but we haven’t been able to get one. Their plan is noble, but it is difficult to administer on a national level.”

Looking to their future, Samir Shah asked Watts how he and his classmates could expect to be able to afford to go to college.

“The government has a responsibility to help provide an education for those who want one, but we must do everything we can to ensure those who can’t afford to pay it on their own have a chance to go to college,” Watts said. “You still have to study hard to try to get scholarships, but there will be loans you’ll have to look into to fund your college education. It’s a question of how much state tax dollars should be dedicated to colleges.”

For O’Brien’s final question of the evening, Laura Doan asked him how he was working with Gov. Tim Kaine (D) to balance the state budget and which programs may have their funding cut.

The current two-year budget for Virginia had a price tag of $66 billion when approved in 2004, O’Brien said. The budget up for discussion now is set at $74 billion.

“Despite that growth, we want to stay efficient,” he said. “The fastest growing part of our budget is Medicaid, but we need to make sure we put more money into education, transportation and public services too. We’ve neglected transportation in Northern Virginia, we don’t get as much as we should.”

The final question of the night, from Lexi Haddad, proved to be as timely and mature as any other posed to Davis during the forum.

“Do you feel that the current Department of Homeland Security is adequate and what is your opinion on the current controversies surrounding the National Security Agency’s ‘Terrorism project’,” she asked.

Promising that the country is “safer today than before 9/11,” Davis said the Department of Homeland Security still isn’t working the way it should.

As for the recent admission that the Bush administration is recording phone conversations and monitoring calls placed by American citizens to people overseas, Davis said he “doesn’t have a problem with this practice in concept. I don’t think there’s anything wrong. However, if we give the executive branch of the government this power without checks and balances, it can lead to unfettered access” to citizen’s private lives, which he doesn’t feel is wise.

The politicians thanked the students for their well-researched questions at the end of the evening, impressed by their grasp of current events and political issues.

“I have to say, I love this format,” O’Brien said. “You guys are great. This is one of the best forums I’ve ever been to.”